Understanding China’s Heritage Through Classical Chinese Dance

NTD’s classical Chinese dance competition is approaching. We sat down with one candidate, Marilyn Yang, to understand more of her artistic journey and what she has in store for us this year.

Marilyn Yang is from classical Chinese dance company Shen Yun. A former gold award winner, she is joining the competition for the third time.

“I’ve been very familiar with classical Chinese culture because my mom was a singer at Shen Yun, and both my brothers are dancers at Shen Yun Performing Arts. So it was kind of like a natural thing for me to follow in their footsteps.”

She was particularly impressed with one dance training she received at Shen Yun: “shen-dai-shou,” or the body leads the hands; and “kua-dai-tui,” or the hips lead the legs.

“It really makes your moves very clean and big. The way you can express yourself through your dance is a lot more powerful.”

In this technique, the core of the body—the source of all emotions—powers all of the movements.

Yang says “shen-dai-shou, kua-dai-tui” makes their techniques better too: “Your spins will be a lot faster, you’ll spin a lot more. And then when you use [it] for jumping and tumbling, it’s very different for a dancer. They will immediately jump higher and feel more lofty when they do it.”

Marilyn Yang
Shen Yun dancer Marilyn Yang in a file photo. (The Epoch Times)

The dance Yang choreographed for this year’s competition shows the story of Wang Zhaojun, one of the four most beautiful women in ancient China. Wang prevented bloodshed in her country by being a “peace bride,” married off to a remote and barren land that’s close to today’s Mongolia.

But instead of focusing on the teary departure scene, Yang turned to the beauty’s life on the barren land.

“For me, I incorporated some Mongolian dance moves. I wanted to show that her heart was open. She accepts her fate, and she’s not bitter about it, and that it’s already become a part of her. Like this culture, this Mongolian culture is part of who she is now. But she sees a flower, and then … the memories come flooding back to her, and it shows that she still has that Han Dynasty maiden in her bones.”

“I don’t want people to believe that Wang Zhaojun, her whole life was sorrowful, that it was bitter. I want to show that, how she was very generous … she won’t drown in her own sorrows, that she’ll keep looking forward. And then she’ll continue her life in the best way possible.”

Yang said classical Chinese dance is able to embody 5,000 years of traditional morality and virtues into its essence. And it requires certain traits from the dancers.

“What really stands out is the selflessness … Usually, people nowadays think it’s about the spotlight, they want to be in the front row, they want to be the lead dancer. But for us, it’s not about that. We want to give the audience, bring them on a spiritual level.”

“I feel like classical Chinese dance gives meaning to my life because I’m doing something that’s bigger than myself,” that is, reviving traditional Chinese culture.

“Through classical Chinese dance, I got to understand what China’s heritage really is supposed to be like. It’s divine.”

Now she gets to bring these traditions back to life through this expressive art form.

Dance itself is a universal language, like you don’t have to be of the same culture to understand Chinese dance.”

“You can’t really use words to describe China’s history, China’s dance, Chinese art. It’s something you should definitely come and experience for yourself.”